One of the questions that had to be faced by the English Puritans was the question of their duty towards the church and state of their own land. Just what was their duty? And how did that duty relate to their desire for freedom to practice the religion that they believed in without molestation from others?
As they faced the struggles of life in England as perceived “outsiders” from the established church, they often longed for more freedom. It was, no doubt, often a hardship to take the stand that they did in opposition to the practices of the English church that were demanded of them. They did not agree with various parts of the English church practice, and they simply were not going to submit to things that went against their conscience before God. They were brave and faithful men.
When the thoughts began to grow that they might find liberty to worship God as they liked if they would simply leave the land of their birth and home, there must naturally have been much in the way of mixed emotions. The thought of having freedom was hugely appealing; the sorrowful necessity of leaving their home to find it must have dampened their excitement a great deal.
But apart from the sheer personal side of the matter, an important discussion that had to be faced was the question of their duty to those others in England who were of like mind with them. You see, there were many of the Puritans who did not agree with the thought of leaving England. They believed in their duty to stay in England and stand for truth in their own land. For such men, the idea that many of the best and most faithful men among them might leave them and thus, in their mind, abandon the cause, was a great blow to them. They felt that this was indeed an abandonment of the cause and a desertion against those who remained to support the cause of truth in England. They felt that the Puritans ought not leave England, but were duty-bound to stay and “fight” the good fight with them.
On the other hand, though, there were plenty of reasons that the Puritans felt it best to leave. They perceived this as an opportunity to establish a land of refuge for all those who desired to flee from the oppressions that they faced as they sought to serve God according to His word. As John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts for many of its earliest years, describes it:
“Who knows but that God hath provided this place to be a refuge for many whom he means to save out of the general calamity, and seeing the Church hath no place left to flee into but the wilderness, what better work can there be then to go and provide tabernacles and food for her against she comes thither?”
So the Puritans who departed saw their cause. They felt it more important to establish a free land of refuge for the faithful than to stay and suffer along with those who sought to maintain the cause in England.
It is very interesting to me to see how similar this line of thinking was to the basic difference between Puritan and Separatist. While these Puritans who departed from England disagreed with the stance of the separatists who felt it necessary to remove themselves from fellowship with the Church of England, it is ironic that these Puritans themselves did effectively that. The difference does indeed remain that they made no official separation from the Church of England as an ecclesiastical organization, yet they separated themselves from it by the whole of the Atlantic Ocean. The same principles of disagreement that were between Separatist and Puritan were at the heart of this disagreement between the camps with Puritanism.
Such dilemmas are not isolated matters for that time of history, either. We are often having to face such questions ourselves. When is the right time to separate, and when is the proper course rather to stay associated with the larger body in an attempt to support the cause of truth within it? And, to put it a step further (or at least more plainly), are those who leave abandoning the cause and those who are standing for it where they are? Or, on the other hand, are those who refuse to leave and separate being unfaithful to their duty? Are they also themselves rather under an obligation to leave?
I would venture to say that we in our day probably do not appreciate either side of the dilemma very fully. How much do we feel of our obligation to one another in terms like these? Do we feel ourselves under a brotherly bond of love to one another so that it would indeed be a dramatic and large decision to leave and remove ourselves elsewhere? Do we ever think in terms of an army waging a war, with those who leave in the middle of it committing a terrible act of unfaithfulness? How much thought do we give to others in such decisions? Do we feel and act instead that we are our own men and that it is a personal and individual decision? I doubt that we think in this way of brotherly obligation much today.
On the other side, I doubt also that we have much sensibility of the importance of separation from those principles of unfaithfulness and falsehood that are often prevalent in this world. There is a real and true duty at times, to separate and begin something new and fresh with a better and truer foundation.
The difficulty lies in the question of when to do which. When is the duty to brotherly love and closeness stronger, and when is the balance instead on the side of removal? We have to think about these things more seriously, I believe.
It is interesting, too, to see how the history develops in regards to this matter for the Puritans who did remove to America. I am aware of at least two points of great interest in the matter after the Puritans established the Massachusetts colony in America.
First, it is a very interesting fact that, not too many years after the Puritans settled in America, many of them actually returned to England. Events in their homeland had come to a point where the Puritans were gaining authority in the nation, and many of those who had come to America determined that their duty now was to return to England to support the cause. Now that they saw the potential for the truth to reign and be victorious in the land, they felt very differently about being away from it.
Second, the perspective taken by at least some of the Puritan colonial leaders in relation to those who did return to England (or go anywhere else) is very interesting. Judging from Winthrop’s evaluation of the matter, which we must assume was shared by at least some of the other important men of the colony, those who left the cause of the colony for another purpose were themselves abandoning the work and failing in their duty to their companions. They had joined in this work, and they were bound to continue in it. Their departure weakened the colony’s strength. They were leaving their brethren in a lurch.
Basically, then, Winthrop felt abandoned in a similar way as those in England felt when he himself departed with so many of the Puritans for America. How differently things might appear when the shoe is on the other foot!
Does this mean that Winthrop was a bit inconsistent in the matter? Maybe, but not necessarily. There is a time to stay, and there is a time to go. Perhaps Winthrop was right in both cases. Perhaps the time and situation did indeed warrant and even call for a departure from England for the Puritans who took that course. And perhaps no such warrant was rightly to be found for those who later departed from the colony. Each case is to be judged on its own merits.
It leaves us at least with a better understanding, I hope, of the need to evaluate these matters more carefully. And perhaps it gives us some sympathy for both sides of the discussion, as well.